By Amy Wenk

In response to the city of Atlanta’s anticipated $140 million budget deficit for 2009, members of the city council introduced legislation at the April 21 council meeting to increase their oversight of the budget.

Dist. 7 Councilman Howard Shook, who represents much of the Buckhead area and is chair of the city Finance Committee, proposed several pieces of legislation to make it more difficult for the city to raise taxes as a means of fixing the budget deficit.

Among the proposals, Shook is requesting that any legislation that calls for new or higher ad valorem taxes, any new or increase in fees or any additional bond indebtedness to balance the 2009 budget would require a two-thirds super majority (10 affirmative votes) of the city council for approval. Currently only eight votes from the 15 members are required to approve such changes.

“Raising taxes or increasing fees is not prudent in these economic times,” Shook said. “This council will work with the administration on finding the most practical solutions to offsetting reduced revenues during the current fiscal year and next year.”

Shook introduced other legislation, such as an ordinance requiring the annual budget to appear online, as well as an ordinance mandating that all external audits of city finances be received by city council’s Finance Committee.

In addition, Shook proposed a resolution requesting that the Internal Audit assist the Finance Committee as it evaluates the fiscal year 2009 proposed budget. He also introduced a resolution requesting that the Procurement Department address a specific list of procurement weaknesses identified in two previous internal audits.

Dist. 9 Councilmember Felicia Moore also introduced legislation to reform the budget process. Among her proposals was a charter amendment giving the council the power to approve position reclassifications and pay raises for supervisors. She also proposed the delay of a plan passed by the city council in 1996 that increases the amount of money the Mayor’s staff can spend without a council vote.

“Given the current budget shortfall, it is responsible for the council to put more controls in place to ensure sound financial management on behalf of our citizens,” Council President Lisa Borders said.

The legislative items were referred to the Finance/Executive Committee for further discussion at its next meeting on April 30.

The Atlanta City Council also voted at the meeting whether to accept Mayor Shirley Franklin’s reappointment of two council members, Cleta Winslow and Jim Maddox, to serve on the Budget Commission. The commission is comprised of five members: the mayor, the chief financial officer, the chairperson of the Finance Committee (a position currently held by Shook) and two council members. These members are nominated by the mayor and then confirmed by the governing body.

At the meeting, Dist. 10 Councilman C.T. Martin questioned Winslow about the position.

“I have served on that [committee] and I know how it operates,” Martin said. “The Mayor calls you at the last minute on the day the budget is to be passed. They have a little meeting, just a quickie, and you are told how to vote.

“You have got to be prepared to take a stand. I want to know if we can get a commitment out of Ms. Winslow to represent us, and if the budget is not right, that she won’t allow someone to tell her how to vote.”

Winslow gave Martin her commitment.

“I am as concerned as other council members are in regard to the fact that we have to cut $65 to $70 million out of the current budget, and I am also very concerned for next year’s budget, ‘08 and ‘09, that we have to double that,” she said.

The reappointment of Winslow to the Budget Commission was confirmed by a vote of 11-1. Due to the absence of Maddox, the council decided to table the decision on his reappointment.

The discussion rose in intensity when Martin asked for a similar commitment from Shook, who is automatically nominated to the Budget Commission.

“I will be happy to let you know that I don’t plan on supporting something the evidence doesn’t suggest as sound,” Shook said.

Possible personnel cuts were another hot topic at the April 21 meeting.

In a statement released April 23 online at www.atlantaga.gov, Mayor Franklin said, “Personnel costs including benefits comprise 70 percent of the General Fund. As I have stated before, we are considering all of our options including a reduction in staff and services, outsourcing and consolidating services.”

At the meeting, council questioned City Attorney Elizabeth Chandler about the authority the city administration and mayor has for making personnel cuts.

“We are providing legal advice for the administration on several aspects of the budget,” she said. “I won’t go into specifics because of my confidentiality obligations to the administration.”

The Atlanta City Council will receive the Mayor’s proposed budget on May 1. The earliest the council could vote on the legislation introduced April 21 is in June, when the 2009 budget will be adopted.